Madonna, Kobe, Bono…Gomez. You gotta work pretty hard, or be exceptionally talented, for the world to identify you by one name. Gomez, however, just happens to be exceptionally…Gomez. Known to his parents, authorities, and clients of CASA Tours—a South American ski guide service he owns—as David Johnson, Gomez is well on his way to becoming one of skiing’s best characters. Connecticut-raised and Bozeman-based, the 41-year-old wears a big mustache and long hair, which he grows in tribute to a friend who died of ovarian cancer. He lives in the moment and is always up for an adventure, whether paddling out for a surf in San Diego, smuggling himself and his bike into Cuba (right after 9/11, no less) for a solo bike tour across the island, getting lost in Tokyo for six hours, or hunting down powder with his guests in his beloved Andes.
We recently sat down with him for beers in Jackson Hole, where he was squeezing in a mountain bike trip before heading to Chile for the South American winter.
POWDER: When and where did you start skiing?
Gomez: My first snow memories involved a Snurfer and the hills at local golf courses. My folks would bring my sister and me to Vermont for spring break and that’s where I was introduced to skiing, at places like Middlebury, Okemo, and Stratton.
How did you get into the ski lifestyle? College, ski bumming, road trip, or what?
It started in 1989 when I was an exchange student in New Zealand, which is where I was introduced to backcountry skiing, paragliding, kayaking, climbing, and backpacking. This experience totally opened my world and led me to go to University of Colorado at Boulder. It was kind of like Dexter Rutecki goes to college. The freeskiing and backcountry movement was gaining a lot of momentum in the early ’90s, and then I took a trip to Southwest Montana and Bridger Bowl, where my idols like Scot Schmidt and Doug Coombs had cut their teeth. Seeing all these unassuming local rippers shredding this community ski area, that’s when I found my place. I decided to dedicate myself to learning more about the mountains and spending as much time as I could in them.
So, naturally, you ended up in Bozeman.
After I graduated from CU, I spent the 1995-96 season hitchhiking and skiing throughout Colorado. I knew I wanted to spend the following winter skiing somewhere new and wound up in Bozeman after two days in Salt Lake. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. The ski culture at Bridger Bowl really taught me a lot about the sport, avalanche awareness, and the snow community. I am proud to call it my home mountain 17 seasons later.
I know you had a pretty gnarly accident a few years ago. Can you tell me about that? Did it change you as a skier? As a person? Mount Campbell, Telluride, March 10, 2005. I was skiing with Chason Russell and it was the first corn cycle of the season. Toward the end of the run, hauling ass and mocking chicken, I came to a raised terrain feature. On the other side, out of my view, was an exposed scree field about 20 yards wide. I saw it at the last second, going about 40 mph. The last thing I remember before blacking out is seeing the rocks, thinking this is going to be really bad.
My ski tip caught one of the boulders and I cartwheeled through the boulder field. Chason says the wreck was the most violent crash he’s ever seen. Fortunately, I landed on snow and came to pretty quickly. But I have no memory of the actual crash or impact. Covered in blood, my nostril ripped off, my septum deviated, I cracked my orbitals, and I broke my maxilla bone. My helmet saved my life and it was cracked all the way through. My shovel saved me from a serious back injury. Locals could see the blood from the crash for days, all the way across the valley. I was skiing two weeks later, but I’ve always been conscious about how lucky I am to ski another day. As a skier and a person, it fuels me to live everyday to its fullest, to be humble, and realize how fortunate I am.
You’re known by most people simply as “Gomez.” Where did that name come from?
When I first moved to Bozeman, in 1996, I was looking for restaurant work and I walked into Mackenzie River Pizza. Another Dave Johnson and Bridger legend, aka “Sixer,” quit the week earlier. The managers looked at each other, realized they didn’t have to change the name on the schedule, and hired me on the spot. A week later they said I needed a nickname to distinguish which Dave Johnson I was and one of the waiters coined me “Gomez.” The name really stuck when Big Sky tried to pull my pass for supposedly poaching a closed area. They were stymied when they found out there was no Dave Gomez on their pass-holder list. The patrollers knew I hadn’t done anything wrong and wouldn’t reveal my real name. It steamrolled from there in true Hotdog/Aspen Extreme fashion.
What first drew you to South America?
I love to travel and spent time in Mexico, Panama, Cuba, and Venezuela before heading to the Andes in July 2002. I convinced my boss at the time to fly me down to Chile. That season was all time and my love affair with skiing in South America began.
What’s the story behind CASA Tours?
CASA stands for Chile Argentina Snow Adventures. It starting running tours in 1998, but at that time it was really difficult to travel between resorts. Often, the only option for most people was to spend a week at Portillo. We wanted to offer our guests an opportunity to visit a variety of resorts, ski the backcountry, eat at local restaurants, and stay at family-run lodges—to really experience the culture of Chile in addition to the amazing terrain of the Andes. I began guiding for them in 2002. In 2007, I bought CASA Tours from founders Aaron Chan and Jeremy Thomas, my good friend from CU. Since then, we’ve added new trips to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and run tours to 13 different destinations in South America.
Favorite spot in Chile? And why?
Nevados de Chillan or Corralco and Volcan Lonquimay. We’ve been bringing guests to Chillan since we started CASA Tours. Some of the most magical powder days in CASA history were here. Steam vents, lava flows, and volcanic peaks make the terrain very unique.
Even more off the beaten path is Corralco and Volcan Lonquimay. I feel like I am in the middle of a Dr. Seuss book when I stand next to the monkey puzzle trees, which are as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids. The road entering the ski area feels like you’re driving through Jurassic Park. The terrain is deceivingly big and usually it’s empty. There are options galore for hiking, and the place is epic for snow-kiters.
What are some of the most often overlooked or underrated aspects of skiing in Chile?
Some of the most buttered corn spring skiing I’ve ever done. Skiing Chile’s volcanoes in September can be outstanding. The scenery in Chile’s Lake and Volcano district is spectacular. Stands of pre-historic Arucauria, or monkey puzzle trees, hot springs, massive lakes, and gigantic volcanic peaks characterize this region. It is one of the most beautiful places to ski in Chile.
Since you’ve been guiding internationally, what has been the most significant change you’ve seen?
The popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding has grown considerably. Splitboards and AT gear along with ski and snowboard technology are opening the gates worldwide.
You seem to have figured out how to build your life around skiing, travel, and meeting new people. Sounds like a dream life. What’s your secret?
These are my passions. I’ve always figured out a way to independently support this lifestyle whether it was washing dishes or running CASA Tours. I always prioritized traveling and am completely addicted to the nomadic lifestyle and planning new adventures. One tip: Being a good guest goes a long way.
How does that work out having a “home” life?
Well, I am not married and don’t have kids, so it works out pretty good. I finally “settled” down and bought a home in Bozeman three years ago and am spending more time there. I am very fortunate to have friends spread out all over the world and often feel at “home” wherever I go.
And finally, the word on the streets is that you are the only person in the world who can survive on peanuts and beer and still ski every day. That true?
Verdad! But don’t forget the Orange Fanta.